Over the peak but not ‘out of the woods:’ Drop in Omicron cases welcomed — but officials warn in weeks ahead ‘hundreds more may die’

Over the peak but not ‘out of the woods:’ Drop in Omicron cases welcomed — but officials warn in weeks ahead ‘hundreds more may die’

Dr. Allison Arwady provides an update on COVID-19 cases in Chicago Wednesday, reporting the city has passed the Omicron peak. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times

“We are not out of the woods, and we need people to be very careful over these next few weeks,” Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said. Gov. J.B. Pritzker observed, “It breaks my heart to know that in the coming weeks, hundreds more may die among the thousands who are already seriously ill with COVID.”

Illinois has made it through the worst of the Omicron storm, officials said Wednesday — even though the state reported its worst one-day COVID-19 death toll in more than a year.

With case counts and new hospitalizations dipping slightly for a week after the largest surge of the pandemic, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady both voiced hope that the highest coronavirus peak yet has been scaled.

“I am cautiously optimistic about this decline, but there are an awful lot of people still battling for their lives in hospitals across Illinois,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker said during a Loop news conference.

The state reported more than 26,000 new cases, which would’ve dwarfed anything seen in Illinois before Omicron overtook the state last month. But daily case counts counts have been steadily dipping since last week, a decline that’s now being matched by descending hospital admissions. More than 6,500 COVID patients were hospitalized statewide Tuesday night, still higher than any previous surge, but a decline of more than 700 in a week.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks at a news conference at the Thompson Center earlier this month. Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file
Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks at a news conference at the Thompson Center earlier this month.

The numbers are showing similarly encouraging signs in the city, where 2,903 people have tested positive each day over the last week, a 46% decrease compared to the previous week. About 196 Chicagoans are being admitted to the hospital each day, a decline of just 2% — but one that follows more than a month of exponential increases.

“I do not want to imply that the good news of seeing this surge start to subside suggests in any way that the risk is low, that we aren’t going to continue to see a lot of COVID cases — we are, as we continue to come out of this surge,” Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said during a separate news conference.

The city has “passed that peak, but we are not out of the woods, and we need people to be very careful over these next few weeks,” she said.

COVID deaths still aren’t falling much, though. Another 160 COVID deaths were reported Wednesday, the most in a day since Jan. 7, 2021. That total includes some deaths that were delayed in reporting over the long holiday weekend, but overall “we are seeing an increase in deaths being reported,” according to a spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Public Health.

An average of 101 residents have died of the virus each day over the last week, and the death rate has hovered around there for about a week. COVID fatalities are considered the final “lagging indicator” of the pandemic because it takes a few weeks for them to rise after a spike in cases and hospitalizations. During the worst of it in the fall of 2020, more than 150 residents were dying of COVID daily.

The difference this time around is that life-saving vaccines are readily available nationwide. The vast majority of people ending up in the hospital or worse with the coronavirus have been unvaccinated. About 21% of Illinoisans still haven’t gotten a shot.

“Despite the recent indications of fewer new infections and fewer new hospital admissions ahead, it breaks my heart to know that in the coming weeks, hundreds more may die among the thousands who are already seriously ill with COVID,” Pritzker said. “Our declining hospitalizations rates are a hopeful sign that vaccinations, boosters and masks are working.”

As for the skeptics, the governor urged vaccinated residents to “approach them with compassion, with facts and, most of all, with your own reasons for getting vaccinated.”

For help finding a shot, or to set up a free in-home vaccination appointment, visit chicago.gov/covidvax or call (312) 746-4835.

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